The Changing Orthodox World: Haredi Community Bursting at Seams, but Facing Growing Ecomonic Crisis

GROWING ECONOMIC CRISIS Two nights a week, Malkie D. farms out her five children to neighbors and gets into her battered station wagon to work as a car-service driver.

Malkie, who lives in the fervently Orthodox enclave of Lakewood, N.J., is eight months pregnant and can hardly fit behind the steering wheel. But she is desperate to earn money.

She has yeshiva bills to pay, though the schools have slashed their tuition for her family. She buys her family used clothing by the pound at a warehouse. And she relies on welfare and food stamps to get by.

Her husband, Yankel, does not earn much of an income. He spent the first five years of their marriage learning full-time, getting a tiny stipend from the kollel (a religious learning program for adult men), while Malkie worked as a teacher’s side.

He has worked as a plumber since finishing his studies. After finishing kollel, a friend took him on jobs, where he picked up a few skills. He has little success getting his clients to pay his fee.

But he does not know what else to do. Nothing he learned in his years of study prepared him to earn a living.

Malkie and Yankel’s story is not an unusual one in the haredi world, where a man’s studying Talmud full-time in kollel has come to be regarded as the paramount expression of Orthodox commitment.

And, paradoxically, while many might view their grinding poverty as a failure of the haredi system, fervently Orthodox leaders view lives like Malkie’s and Yankel’s as a success story.

The primacy of learning in their lives has come to represent the success of the fervently Orthodox community’s values in the New World.

“It is such a pleasure to see so many young people giving up careers” in order to learn in kollel, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel of America, said in a recent interview.

But it has also created a large economic underclass of families unable to support the institutions of their community. And the institutions, in turn, are having an increasingly difficult time supporting their constituents.

The haredi community has “a smaller population and more institutions, is the poorest of all the movements and has the higher Jewish bill,” according to Samuel Heilman, who holds a chair in Jewish studies at the City University of New York, and has written extensively about the haredi world.

“The paradox of Orthodoxy is that their success is the seeds of their failure,” he said. “Keeping people in educational institutions for longer has created an enormous economic crisis for them.”

There was a time when only the most talented students went on to kollel after high school, while the others prepared for a profession.

Today, most men go straight into kollel. College is not longer regarded as an unfortunate but necessary endeavor. It is strongly discouraged.

The community’s leadership believes that by focusing increasingly on what they view as authentic Jewish values, they have managed to triumph over the external threats of Nazism and America’s seductive secularism.

Jewish sociologists in the 1950s predicted that the iconoclastic ideals of fervently Orthodox Judaism could not survive on American soil.

But the fervently Orthodox have succeeded and created vibrant communities where their strict interpretations of Torah take root in families with the highest birthrate in the Jewish world.

Though the percentage of American Jews who are Orthodox has declined over the past 20 years, from 11 percent to 6 percent, the proportion of Orthodox Jews who are haredi is growing, according to most experts.

Haredim still constitute a relatively tiny segment of American Jewry – about 106,000 people, or well under I percent, according to Heilman, who based his findings on the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey.

Agudath Israel is the central institution of the haredi world. It represents the fervently Orthodox community to government lawmakers, aiding the community’s schools with legal advice and programming and providing some social services, like programs for disabled youngsters and an employment agency.

It also runs the Daf Yomi program, in which men all over the world study the same page of Talmud on the same day and celebrate the completion of the cycle every seven and a half years or so.

The Agudah’s membership has doubled in the past 15 years, to 35,000 member families, according Sherer, and its budget has tripled, to $10 million, in the last decade.

The community exerts a conservative influence on American life and American life and American Jewish life well beyond its numbers.

Even between campaigns, federal and state politicians court Agudath Israel’s leaders.

And when Sherer recited the invocation at New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s inauguration last January, it was not because he and the mayor are such good friends.

It was, no doubt, a reflection of the fact that an Agudah voter-registration drive signed up more than 20,000 voters who likely voted straight down the Republican line.

Within American Jewish life, the fervently Orthodox have succeeded in undermining the legitimacy of Modern Orthodoxy, which promotes living as an observant Jew in the larger culture.

They view the assimilation of most of American Jewry as their vindication.

“Anything less than classical Judaism cannot and will not stem the hemorrhaging that our people are suffering,” wrote Agudah leader Sherer, in a 1993 letter declining an invitation to join the North American Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity.

The community’s leaders have long eschewed cooperation with American Jewry’s other movements and organizations.

But as the financial crisis deepens, so does the sense of desperation.

“We don’t want our children to become a part of the permanent `schnorer’ class which is developing in certain communities,” said David Zweibel, director of government affairs for Agudah.

Nevertheless, the haredi community shows no signs of altering its priorities and encouraging its children to prepare for a way to support themselves.

Instead, they are looking else where for financial aid – to government welfare programs and legislation like school vouchers for private school education.

And they are grappling to find a way to get on the allocations agenda of Jewish federations, even as they turn down invitations to participate in cooperative policy endeavors.

“We’ve essentially exhausted the community’s own resources, and therefore we’re looking to outside sources,” said Zweibel. “One part of the picture ought to be government, another part the more general Jewish community. Both those avenues are underdeveloped,” he said.

At Agudah’s recent convention, held over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in suburban New Jersey, one of the round-table sessions was titled “The Orthodox Community and Jewish Federations: Exploring the Limits of Cooperation.”

“One of the first places we can turn to is the federations around the country which have, if nothing else, been uniquely successful in fund-raising, and perhaps not much else in some places,” said Abraham Biderman, a member of the planning Cabinet of the UJA-Federation of New York, who chaired the session.

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